Take to the skies

Pricilla Waugh explores the formative Oxford years of famous aircraft engineer Sir Geofrey de Havilland

Young and old... Sir Geoffrey de Havilland

Names evoke images as can little else. Take Medley Manor Farm. You might take a leisurely walk in high summer here, across Port Meadow, to indulge in a little gentle strawberry picking for a riverside picnic.

The farmhouse is hidden from view by mature trees, ivy and the ancient manor wall, but it is still there, and still a working farm.

The 1881 census shows the farmer at Medley as one Jason Saunders. His head is carved on a pillar in the Council Chamber corridor of the Town Hall. An active Liberal and committed Freemason, Saunders had been appointed Sheriff of Oxford in 1871 and Mayor in 1875. We see an uncompromising man with deep-set eyes in a broad, intelligent forehead and the typical Edwardian walrus moustache. He looks kindly, despite the broken nose inflicted during some municipal rearrangement.

The farmhouse at Medley, Oxford, as it is today
watercolour by David Langford

Saunders was born locally of yeoman farmer stock, receiving a limited education and no material advantages. But he was a hard worker possessed of a fine business sense. He built up a thriving transport, removal and warehousing company in Oxford while running the large farm of Medley with conspicuous success. He installed workshops for blacksmith, wheelwright and carpenter all around the yard. because all Saunders vehicles, commercial and farm, were made on site. Even the trees for the carriage work were felled on site.

Saunders’ daughter, Alice, married a whimsical and impoverished clergyman, Charles de Havilland and every summer their children spent at Medley, where they experimented with mechanics, electricity and construction techniques.

Young Geoffrey especially, watched the Medley craftsmen at work and from them he learned. He wandered across the farm and over Port Meadow, watching the butterflies and moths that remained an abiding fascination for the rest of his life and from them, too, he learned.

Their grandfather was an unfailing source of support to his grandchildren, and while it is his son-in-law’s name that has become famous, it was thanks to the faith and practical support of Alderman Saunders that the first de Havilland aircraft was built.

On a summer’s afternoon in Oxfordshire a rumble overhead may denote the passing of any of a number of vintage aircraft from one of many local airfields.

aYou may recognise those from the de Havilland stable: Tiger Moth, Hornet Moth, Puss Moth, Dragon Rapide and, of course, the famous Mosquito. which so profoundly irritated the Luftwaffe. Names evoke images. And in the Oxfordshire skies over Medley you might almost imagine that Jason Saunders and his grandson, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland live on.

The Oxford Limited Edition May, 2005